Court: Cincinnati Billboard Tax Violates First Amendment

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — A tax levied by the city of Cincinnati on billboard companies in an effort to close a budget shortfall is an unconstitutional of First Amendment rights to free speech, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

Justice Sharon Kennedy, writing the court's unanimous opinion, said the companies, as publishers of speech, can't be singled out for engaging in protected expression. She also noted that because of various exceptions, the tax applied mainly to two companies.

Those businesses, Lamar Advertising and Norton Outdoor Advertising, indicated the tax would require them to remove less profitable billboards, which has the effect of limiting protected speech, Kennedy said.

“That the tax involves billboards rather than the institutional press is of no consequence, and strict scrutiny applies,” Kennedy said.

Cincinnati imposed the tax three years ago to raise $709,000 to help cover a $2.5 million budget shortfall. The city argued unsuccessfully that the tax was only a commercial transaction and didn’t target billboard messages.